Long before he was forced to apologize for his now notorious Fyre Festival, entrepreneur Billy McFarland founded another company in 2013 called Magnises that made some familiar-sounding promises targeting status-seeking millennials.
For an annual membership fee of about $250, Magnises members could “unlock their cities and take their lives to the next level.” They were assured exclusive tickets to “private members-only concerts, tastings with notable chefs, and exclusive art previews at top galleries,” as well as access to hard-to-book Broadway shows (including “Hamilton”) and events such as New York Fashion Week.
But some of those benefits never materialized or were far from what was advertised, according to a report earlier this year by Business Insider. Several Magnises members in New York reported trips that were canceled at the last minute or tickets to an exclusive event that never arrived.
Over the past three years, the Better Business Bureau has registered 17 complaints about Magnises, ranging from billing issues to problems with delivery. One complainant described spending $430 for tickets to Broadway’s “Hamilton,” only to get a generic email the week before the show saying the tickets were canceled. It would take weeks and a BBB complaint before a refund was issued.
“It has now been a month and a half and I have no refund,” the complainant wrote. “I have emailed numerous times and have oftentimes never … heard back.”
Earlier this year, McFarland, 25, apologized for what he called “growing pains” that had cropped up as a result of Magnises’s rapid expansion from New York to San Francisco and Washington, as well.
“We’ve hit some roadblocks along the way, and that’s what happens when you grow really quickly, and that’s on me,” McFarland told Business Insider.
If Magnises had served as a cautionary tale for McFarland along the way, that didn’t stop him from launching similar subscription-only spinoffs for private chartered air travel (Magnises Air) and sporting events (SportsPass) along the way. And McFarland certainly didn’t seem to apply any of those lessons to Fyre Festival, the “once-in-a-lifetime musical experience” that imploded under the weight of its own hype and disorganization this week.
By now, the epic disaster that was supposed to be the Fyre Festival is legend.
Festivalgoers shelled out anywhere from $450 to $250,000 for the promise of two weekends of live music, luxurious accommodations, gourmet meals and mingling with celebrities on a private island in the Bahamas.
“MORE THAN JUST A MUSIC FESTIVAL,” blared a promotional video for the event, organized by McFarland and the rapper Ja Rule.
In fairness, that part was technically true.
When attendees arrived this week in the Exumas, a group of islands belonging to the Bahamas, they discovered that the luxury accommodations were actually disaster-relief tents on the beach, some still not set up. Cheese sandwiches made up the “gourmet meals,” and festival organizers seemed to be equally in the dark, sometimes literally, about what was supposed to happen. Blink-182, one of the festival’s headliners, had pulled out at the last minute.
Soon, many people were clamoring to get on a flight back home. There were inevitable comparisons to “The Hunger Games,” to the survivalist reality show “Naked and Afraid” and, more regrettably, to actual refugee camps.
On social media, people observed the collapse of the “elite” festival – unfurling live for all to see under #fyrefestival, #dumpsterfyre and other unprintable hashtags – with a mix of shade and schadenfreude.
By Friday, the Fyre Festival website had stripped away its glossy photos and replaced them with a short statement promising refunds and makeup concert dates to all those who had bought tickets. On Saturday, a longer statement from organizers appeared, acknowledging that they had bitten off more than they could chew when deciding to hold a music festival on a remote island in the Bahamas.
“As amazing as the islands are, the infrastructure for a festival of this magnitude needed to be built from the ground up. So, we decided to literally attempt to build a city,” the statement read. The organizers detailed attempts to set up not only concerts, but also water and waste management and an ambulance service from New York. Though it apologized to would-be concertgoers, the statement seemed to find repeated fault with conditions in the Bahamas, from rough weather to a “jam packed” airport to buses that “couldn’t handle the load.”
“We thought we were ready,” the statement said, “but then everyone arrived.”
Though not a sponsor of the festival, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism apologized to those who had traveled to the islands only to find “total disorganization and chaos.” In a terse statement, the tourism ministry said it was festival organizers who should be blamed for the disaster.
“The event organizers assured us that all measures were taken to ensure a safe and successful event but clearly they did not have the capacity to execute an event of this scale,” the statement read.
And, not to be overlooked, Ja Rule issued one of the season’s most bizarre apologies on social media:
“I’m heartbroken at this moment. My partners and I wanted this to be an amazing event it was NOT A SCAM as everyone is reporting. I don’t know how everything went so left but I’m working to make it right by making sure everyone is refunded . I truly apologize as this is NOT MY FAULT . but I’m taking responsibility. I’m deeply sorry to everyone who was inconvenienced by this …”
But it was McFarland who, despite describing Friday as “definitely the toughest day of my life,” was already vowing to forge ahead and hold the event in the future. Perhaps it was his history of moving on from failure. (In 2011, McFarland co-founded a social networking site called Spling, which attracted $400,000 in funding but now appears defunct.) Or his habit of overpromising.
What was clear was that, at least in McFarland’s mind, the Fyre Festival was not dead.
“We were a little naive in thinking for the first time we could do this ourselves,” McFarland told Rolling Stone reporter Steve Knopper on Friday. “Next year, we will definitely start earlier. The reality is, we weren’t experienced enough to keep up.”
Warning signs that the Fyre Festival was in trouble emerged long before anyone touched down in the Bahamas. As The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser reported, an anonymous Twitter account called @FyreFraud began calling out festival organizers for disorganization in March.
“Knew from the beginning this was an impossible undertaking given the time, cost & location,” @FyreFraud told Ohlheiser in a direct message. “The logistics of hosting a festival on a deserted island (no power, water, medics, infrastructure) seemed absurd.”
And in a damning tell-all column for New York magazine, Chloe Gordon, who said she worked as a talent producer for the festival, outlined weeks of dysfunctional management, including flippant disregard for the scale of the project and failure to pay vendors and bands. According to Gordon, one member of the marketing team brushed off concerns that the festival should be postponed until 2018, reportedly declaring, “Let’s just do it and be legends, man.”
“I cannot explain how or why the bros running this festival ignored every warning sign they were given along the way,” Gordon wrote for the magazine. “The writing was on the wall. I saw it firsthand six weeks ago. They overlooked so many very basic things. And baby, they forgot to make me sign an NDA.”
Bob Lefsetz, a music industry analyst who writes a popular newsletter, excoriated Fyre Festival organizers for thinking they could pull together a music festival of that scale on their first attempt. Though he did not specifically name McFarland, he blasted the world in which everybody believes they can do anything.
“It’s a professional business, a skill, requiring boatloads of money and relationships,” Lefsetz wrote in his “Lefsetz Letter” on Friday. “To believe you can become a successful concert promoter overnight is to believe you can shoot hoops in your backyard and instantly start for the Warriors.”
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